Editor’s note: This commentary was first published May 23, 2014.
FORT GEORGE G. MEADE, Md. — There are lots of reminders out there that Memorial Day is about more than a day off or barbecue. It’s also about more than thanking everyone who served or waving flags. The truth is, many people confuse this day with Veterans Day.
This day is about one thing — our fallen warriors.
Congress officially set Memorial Day as the last Monday in May. How ironic that we mark the start of our summer season of fun with the day devoted to the memory of those who perished in the fight for the principles of freedom.
Why is Memorial Day so important? Here are some thoughts:
One thing I think people tend to gloss over with this day — these people died for freedom. While the semantics of how they died, why they died or where they died can become blurred by those seeking to minimize their sacrifice, the reality is that they died in serving the very country that allows for freedoms to belittle these heroes.
They gave of themselves, paying the ultimate sacrifice. This is the day for a grateful nation to remember their service and what it represented.
I think of the power in the memories we hold to the actions taken that were long forgotten by others.
I think of Marine Corps Maj. Megan McClung, who died while serving in Iraq. She embodied her personal catch-phrase of “Be bold, be brief, be gone.”
I think of our Medal of Honor recipients, who all remind us that the recognition is not for them, but for their comrades who are no longer with us.
The greatest honor we can bestow is remembering their gift. For me, experiences have shaped how meaningful the day is.
Long ago, I served as a member of the honor guard, covering a three-state region of Wyoming, Colorado and Nebraska. Our team was incredible in the manner which we would drive for hours to the location, then suddenly put our game face on in preparation for a funeral. Except it wasn’t a game to us.
The crisp folds in our nation’s flag, the sharp salute and presentation to the family on behalf of a grateful nation, and the 21-gun salute that shattered the silence was only shared with sobs and strong hearts during that time.
We honored their passing; but also gave reverence to their important honorable service to this nation.
Though the M-1 Garand rifle was heavy and the snow would be knee-deep at certain locations, we never lost cadence, never lost focus. Whether a bitter -40 degrees or a sweltering 100 degrees, they would become part of this day we now hold as a federal holiday.
Since then, I have been shaped by additional experiences of loss. Whether saluting a hero’s flag-draped coffin as it’s carried onto a C-17 Globemaster III for their journey home, or experiencing the grief of learning of the loss of colleagues, it’s never easy when it hits you.
It really struck home about four and a half years ago, while in Afghanistan.
I will say that personally witnessing the death of a comrade when there’s nothing you could do stays with you forever. It is why the day is so important to me.
This day is for them and for those who served among them. For me, this day is also a time to reflect on all the sacrifice our military family has made. While our military and our country continue, Memorial Day is a reminder that all the heroes we have lost mattered.
Service and sacrifice. This is a day to simply remember.